As strikes expand, Britain faces a new ‘winter of discontent’
By Mark Landler
With a triple-whammy of frigid weather, an early snowfall and crippling strikes across multiple industries, Britain appears headed into what the London tabloids, perhaps inevitably, are labeling another winter of discontent.
Postal workers and railway employees have walked out, holding up Christmas packages and disrupting the travel plans of millions two weeks before the holiday. On Thursday, they were to be joined by as many as 100,000 nurses in a one-day work stoppage that could slow treatment in hospitals and clinics across England.
Driving-test examiners at motor-vehicle departments are going on strike, as well as baggage handlers, bus drivers, road crews and energy-company employees. The newspapers have taken to publishing color-coded calendars to help readers keep track of which services will be interrupted on what date.
The proliferating labor unrest has drawn comparisons to the original winter of discontent, in 1978 and 1979, when public and private-sector strikes paralyzed the country. That cemented a sense that the Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, had lost control, and ultimately toppled his government.
Much has changed since then, of course, not least the power of trade unions in Britain, much diminished since the 1970s. But the political danger to the Conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is still acute. Critics have seized on the chance to blame him for a country that seems broken.
“History is a really big warning sign for Sunak and company,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent. “It was the industrial chaos of the late ’70s that paved the way for a decade of Thatcher. This is compounding a sense in the country that nobody is really in control.”
Sunak said in an interview with The Daily Mail published early Thursday that he planned to introduce anti-strike legislation next year. “I would really hope that union leaders can see that it’s not right to cause such misery and disruption to so many people, particularly at Christmas time,” he told the outlet.
The prime minister was already grappling with a surfeit of other problems: double-digit inflation, rising interest rates and a recession. On Wednesday, he surpassed the number of days that his ill-fated predecessor, Liz Truss, survived in office — a period marked by less drama than Truss’ tenure but scarcely fewer challenges.
The deepening labor unrest dominated Sunak’s last appearance of the year at prime minister’s questions in Parliament. He and his chief antagonist, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, recycled lines that could have been used by Callaghan and his rival, Margaret Thatcher. But this time, their roles were reversed.
“After 12 years of Tory failure, winter has arrived for our public services, and we’ve got a prime minister who has curled up in a ball and gone into hibernation,” Starmer said in a blistering attack on Sunak for what he called the government’s failure to make deals with the major public-sector unions.
Sunak countered that the government had made good-faith wage offers to workers in several sectors, and accused the Labour Party of “protecting their paymasters” in the unions. The prime minister claimed, somewhat implausibly, that the strikes were “Labour’s nightmare before Christmas.”
The government’s hope is that public sentiment will turn against the unions, and that when it does, the Labour Party will pay a political price, much as it did in 1979. Pro-Tory tabloids like Rupert Murdoch’s Sun are pushing the idea that support for the strikes is fraying, not only with the public, but also in the rank-and-file of the unions.
“You’ve lost it Lynch,” the Sun said on its front page Wednesday, referring to Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which for months has been staging strikes that have periodically shut down large parts of the British train system.
Lynch, who had generally been praised for his adroit public profile during the strikes, showed uncharacteristic strain Tuesday. He lashed out at a BBC host, Mishal Husain, when she pressed Lynch on how much money union members were losing on each day they refused to go to work. The BBC, Lynch said, was “parroting” the reporting of the Sun and other right-wing tabloids.
Polls, however, suggest that people continue to support striking workers, who have faced years of low wage growth as well as the strains of the pandemic. In a tracking poll by the market research firm YouGov, 59% of those surveyed said that railway and Underground workers should be allowed to strike, while 30% opposed it. For nurses, the margin was 52% in favor, 38% opposed.
The Royal College of Nurses, which represents the nurses, is demanding a 19% increase in wages. The government has refused to negotiate, claiming that an increase of that magnitude would worsen the backlog in treatment at hospitals by siphoning funds away from other parts of the National Health Service.
The unions, analysts said, were being helped by the perception that they are no longer as militant or powerful as they were in the 1970s. Wages throughout the economy have also stagnated for several years, which has made people more sympathetic for worker demands for substantial raises.
“There is, historically, an unusual level of support for the unions,” said Steven Fielding, an emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “And there are some groups, like the nurses, who are seen as secular saints. This is the first time they have ever gone on strike.”
Sunak has tried to avoid being dragged into direct conflict with the unions by arguing that the wage negotiations should be left to pay review bodies, which set wages for public-sector workers. But critics say the government has hidden behind those bodies to avoid confronting workers’ demands.
In October, Truss struck a deal with striking criminal defense lawyers, offering them a 15% increase in legal aid payments.
The Labour Party has its own sensitivities. While Starmer is publicly supportive of workers, he has discouraged senior party figures from joining picket lines. Labour holds a wide lead in polls over the Conservative Party, and Starmer is loath to put that at risk by becoming too closely associated with the strikers.
Lynch, speaking on the BBC on Wednesday, said he expected that a Labour-led government would take a “similar fiscal line as the Tories,” adding, “We would like them to be a little bolder.”
But for now, the Conservatives are in power, and Labour is portraying the government’s failure to settle the unrest as part of a broader Conservative failure to manage the economy, and by extension, the country — just as Thatcher accused Callaghan more than 40 years ago.